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Census 2000
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Schools face surge in poverty

In traditionally middle class West Pasco, schools struggle to help more low-income students and their families.

By KENT FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


For years, schools in western Pasco County were considered the cream of the crop. They traditionally boasted higher test scores and generally served much wealthier students than their counterparts in Dade City and Zephyrhills.

But a decadelong population boom that brought 20,000 children to Pasco has turned that traditional pattern on its head.

In east and central Pasco, where $150,000 homes sprout up seemingly overnight, schools have been besieged by middle- and upper-middle class families migrating north out of Hillsborough County.

But in west Pasco the picture is vastly different. Over the last 10 years, schools near the coast have seen an unprecedented influx of low-income families that have snatched up cheap homes once occupied by retirees.

As a result, west Pasco schools now face the tremendous challenge of educating a surging population of poorer children.

The numbers document the dramatic demographic change in west side schools during the '90s: enrollments grew by 44 percent while student poverty ballooned 145 percent.

Today, nearly half of all children attending a west Pasco school live in poverty, up from 28 percent in 1991. In east Pasco, the student poverty rate today is 40 percent, up only 2 percent during the last 10 years.

"I don't think the general Pasco community understands what's been happening" to the county's demographics, said Sandy Ramos, the district's assistant superintendent.

It's not that poor children can't learn, said principal Dennis Taylor, of Mittye P. Locke Elementary in Elfers, it is that the task of teaching them is considerably harder than, for instance, educating the children of professionals.

The huge influx of poorer children has forced west Pasco schools to start new early learning programs for preschoolers, to provide families help in getting health care and to offer more before- and after-school day care.

Chronic illness, custody disputes, abuse allegations and poor nutrition are all issues Taylor's teachers must address today.

"You definitely have to reassess your instructional strategies" in that environment, said Taylor. "We try to focus on the academics first, but when the families need help you've got to address it."

In a few cases, Taylor said those efforts have included helping families pay their utility bills.

Taylor arrived as principal at Locke in 1979, when retirees filled the surrounding neighborhoods and the school drew its students from the affluent homes along the Gulf Coast. At the time, fewer than 20 percent of the school's students lived in poverty.

Today most of the retirees are gone, either having died or long since moved into assisted living facilities, and more than 60 percent of Locke's children qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, the federal government's standard for student poverty.

Two years ago Locke was added to the district's Title I rolls, meaning it was now home to so many low-income students that it qualified for money the federal government earmarks for teaching the poor. Since 1995, Pasco has added 13 schools to its Title I list; all but one are in west Pasco.

Further evidence of the demographic change has been the addition of prekindergarten and family programs aimed specifically at low-income families. In 1990, only 100 students attended prekindergarten classes in four schools in west Pasco. Today it's nearly 600 children at 12 schools.

The programs do more than teach young children. They offer parents classes on nutrition and child rearing and give families free access to doctors and dentists.

"We're trying to bring in that parental education piece," said Maria Crosby, the district's director of prekindergarten programs. The growing number of poor children has "forced us to put our heads together to come up with different ways to provide support."

Lynn Simpson and her three children typify the type of family that flocked to southwest Pasco during the 1990s.

When she, her husband and their three kids moved from New Jersey, they were out of work, out of money and looking for a fresh start. They were lured by Pasco's cheap cost of living and inexpensive housing.

"When we first moved here we had zero income," Lynn Simpson said. "The cost of living was a huge factor in why we moved here. The taxes are cheap, insurance is cheap, the housing is cheap."

Simpson enrolled her youngest daughter in one of the new prekindergarten classes at Anclote Elementary School, which saw its student poverty rate grow from less than 50 percent in 1991 to nearly 65 percent today.

Simpson said the contacts she made through the prekindergarten's family services helped her get a job with the school district. A public job training program helped her husband get a good job with a local cable company.

Simpson credits the prekindergarten's family assistance programs with much of her family's newfound success.

"If you take the tools they give you and keep up your end, you can help yourself," Simpson said.

But for every success story like Simpson, principals point to scores of other families that are struggling to make ends meet.

The poverty rate at Calusa Elementary School grew by 25 percent during the 1990s. Chip Wichmanowski was principal for many of those years. As the poverty rates increased, he found himself calling upon the school's social worker and nurse more and more often.

As his population grew, discipline problems become more frequent as did issues involving classroom crowding.

"There were more social issues that we had to address," Wichmanowski said. "We did more to try and bring parents in and to show them, for example, about our reading program or how they can help their child learn at home."

None of this is to say that schools in east Pasco don't also face problems with growth and poverty. Indeed, some of the district's most crowded schools serve the new neighborhoods near the Pasco County line in Zephyrhills. And several schools in and around Dade City continue to have the district's largest concentrations of impoverished children.

But those schools have long histories of serving needy families and spent decades building programs to help families. Those are relatively new challenges for many west-side schools.

"I really don't see the neighborhood going back" to middle class, said Taylor, the principal of Locke Elementary. "I tell my faculty all the time that if they see anyone who needs help to let me know and maybe we can help them better themselves."

- Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached at 800-333-7505, ext. 6241, or at 869-6241. His e-mail address is kfischer@sptimes.com.


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